Orientalism refers to the Western perception and thought of the Eastern world. Initially the term stood for delineating the facets of Eastern culture and societies; the study of its language, culture, people and society. But ever since the inception of Edward Said’s analysis of Orientalism in the academic discourse, the word has been associated with the presumption of Western superiority (more of a patronizing attitude) towards the African, middle east and Asian countries!
Edward Said on what is Orientalism?
In his highly acclaimed and thought-provoking book, Orientalism, Edward said, defines Orientalism as the discipline by which the Orient was and is approached systematically as a topic of learning, discovery and practice. Orientalism, he firmly believes, is the West’s patronizing attitude towards the East!
He further elaborates, that orientalism is a kind of Western projection onto and will to govern over the Orient! Since Orientalism is the western scholarship about the Eastern world, it is inseparably tied to the the colonial and imperialist societies which produced it, which makes it inherently political and obsequious to the imperial power.
Encountering the East, he says, was significant for the self-image of the West! Since they could not ontologically obliterate the west, they found the means to capture it, describe it and radically alter it by producing identities that reflected their cultural, moral and racial superiority!
Till the late nineteenth century, Orientalists were believed to be scholars who specialized in the literature and languages of the eastern world! Those who studied the Eastern world included, colonial administators, missionaries and scholars who wanted to fathom the cultures of the Near East and Far East. British administrators like James Grant, Thomas Babington Macaulay and H. H. Risley showed propensity towards the methods of Orientalism to develop an administrative system that could help them know the subjects, maintain law and order and discover new ways to provide income to the masters.
Then, Enthusiasts like Sir William Jones, wanted to study Arab, Indian and Islamic cultures equally as the cultures of Europe! His studies of Indo-European languages went on to establish modern-day philology.
The missionaries favored Orientalism as a technique to further their own proselytizing endeavors. By serving the need to translate the Bible into the vernacular language and showing people how society and cultural were run by religious systems (and therefore, the only how of improvement of their society being adoption of Christainity), they contributed significantly to the study of the East!
How was India projected by the Orientalists?
Cultural encounter in the nineteenth century India was inscribed into the colonial situation. The formation of “investigative modalities” in the Indian landscape collectively provided the framework of colonialist knowledge of India, beginning in the earliest days of the British encounter with the subcontinent. The myraid of observational modality, survey modality, enumerative modality, museology modality, survelliance modality and historiographic modality together contributed to the broad discourse of colonialist power in which each had a role to play. Exogenous categories of knowledge were arsenals of the colonialist discourse and instruments for the extension of power over a population that was the subject of both, colonial rule and of colonialist knowledge. But social change in India followed a very different pattern from that of colonial and post-colonial Africa and America because Indian society and political development were recognized by Europeans in the eighteenth century as being relatively the same level as European society.
For the period 327 BC to 1498, there were scattered accounts of the Indian society by foreigners and travellers that included the Greeks, Jews, Chinese, Arabs, Turks, Afgans and the Persians. The first classical account of the Indian society is by Megasthenes who describes the Indian society as being divided into seven classes that were ‘endogamous’ and that ‘one could not change his occupation. ‘Arabic accounts like those of Al-Biruni who first mentions the four varna theory of caste system and Indo-Muslim scholars like author and gazetter Abul Fazl presents the view that the four varnas were produced from the body of Bramha at the creation of the world.
The earliest direct observers of the caste system were the Portugese adventurers ,administrators, merchants and priests who, being fascinated in confronting matrilineal and polyandrous groups, began primarily on the Malabar coast to have direct experience with the Indian system where principles of the caste system had been worked out in one of the most extreme forms. Duarte barbosa was one of the earliest to report on the cultural features of the caste system as was French merchant Jean Baptiste Travernier who based his views on ‘what he ascertained from the most accomplished of their priests’ that although there are seventy-two castes, these may be reduced to four principle castes from which all others derive their origin.
With the establishment of British suzerainty, the need for administrative purposes of a knowledge of the structure of Indian society and the intensification of missionary activities systematic knowledge of the Indian society began to develop rapidly!
Alexander Dow, an officer in the East India company’s army, was one of the first to publish a translation of standard Persian histories of India and to him Indian customs and manners appear to have largely meant Bramhanic prescriptions in which the caste system was derived from parts of the body of Bramha. N B Halhed’s ‘A code of gentoo laws’ presents similar views where he seems convinced that texts were indeed accurate guide to the culture and society of the Hindus but this led to the consistent view that Bramhans were a dominant group in the society. The acceptance of the textual view of society by the Orientalist also led to the picture of Indian society as being static, spaceless and timeless! (refer-Bernard Cohn, An Anthropologist among the historians and other Essays) .
The first full expression of the missionary view of India was contained in Charles Grant’s ‘Observation on the state of society’ in which he views Indians as heathens and pagans whose society would be improved only through the elimination of Hinduism. Evangelists and missionaries like Claudius Buchanan, William Carey and William Ward produced extensive works in much the same tenor as Grant’s observations. The major thrust of the missionaries were in their writing was to condemn the Hindus and the Hindu society to further their proselytizing endeavors!
In all these works, the west (the occident) is seen as the norm, the standard, the center and the fixed point around which everything else orbits. The East gets evaluated from the standards of the West and serve as means to glorify the latter. And therefore, the East (the orient) by contrast, becomes the abnormal, exotic and ignoble.
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